Olympic cinderellas: How a British plasterer became ski jumping legend Eddie the Eagle

At every edition of the Olympic Games, there is at least one example of an athlete who beat the odds to realize their dreams and compete at the Games. Sure, these athletes were a long way from winning any medals at the Games, but their stories have inspired thousands and won the hearts of fans. Olympics.com takes a look at the stories of these courageous competitors, beginning with British ski jumper Michael Edwards - better known as Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. 

5 min By Indira Shestakova
Eddie Edwards before the 70 metres Ski Jump event during the 1988 Olympic Games
(Picture by Getty)

Michael Edwards made history at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary when he became the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping. He finished last in both the 70m and 80m events, but his story and remarkable persona (Edwards competed while wearing his now-iconic glasses) earned him fame and renown.

Read on to find out more about the legendary Olympian, who was portrayed by Taron Egerton in the biographical film Eddie the Eagle.

Eddie the Eagle: A true story

Eddie Edwards could have become a regular plasterer, like his father and many other relatives in his family. But he wanted more and dreamed of going to the Olympics. From his early childhood, Edwards proved he wasn't afraid of a challenge. When he was 12, Edwards hurt his knee while playing football; it took two years for Edwards to make a full recovery from the injury. Undeterred, Edwards decided to take up Alpine skiing, proving adept at the sport and managing to get into the British national team.

Edwards had a goal of competing at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo as a member of Great Britain's Alpine skiing team but failed to qualify. But the Eagle wasn't going to give up his Olympic dream that easily.

Following his failure to qualify for the Olympics in Alpine skiing, Edwards took a hard look at the sport of ski jumping, and realized he had a much better chance of heading to the Games if he were to take up the discipline; especially since there wasn't a single ski jumper in the British national team at the time.

Edwards wasn't worried about the difficulties in learning a new sport, since he had a clear objective in mind: the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary. But preparing for the most important competition of his life wasn't easy.

Eddie roved the world, took every casual job available and, due to a complete lack of funding, was barely able to make ends meet. On one occasion he even had to stay at a mental hospital in Finland, where one of the local team's coaches was also working (and, funnily enough, this is where Eddie received confirmation of his getting into the British Olympic team). But nothing could stop him on the way to his dream and the future Eagle continued to train hard.

Eddie Edwards in his home town of Cheltenham, England
Eddie Edwards in his home town of Cheltenham, England (Getty)
Despite finishing last at the 1987 World Championships, Edwards still managed to meet the Olympic standard (at the time) by jumping almost 70 meters, which meant he had qualified for the Calgary Olympics!
Eddie Edwards during a press conference at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary
Eddie Edwards during a press conference at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary (Getty)

Calgary 1988: Becoming the Eagle

When the Briton arrived at Calgary to make history as Team GB's first-ever Olympic ski jumper, he was welcomed by a myriad of fans, with some holding a huge banner that read, "Welcome to Calgary, Eddie The Eagle". Thus, Edward's nickname was born.

The world's media and fans alike were fascinated by Edwards, who took to the ski jump course in borrowed skis and pink goggles which he wore over his trademark thick glasses (Edwards is far-sighted) as he couldn't afford to buy his own equipment.

Eddie Edwards is surrounded by the press after the 90 metres Ski Jump event in Calgary
Eddie Edwards is surrounded by the press after the 90 metres Ski Jump event in Calgary (Getty)

He finished last in both the 70m and 90m events at the Games, but by virtue of being Great Britain's first Olympic ski jumper, he still set a personal and British record of 73.5 meters in one of his jumps.

Through his performance, Edwards perfectly embodied the Olympic spirit and ideals of the Games put forward by Pierre de Coubertin (founder of the International Olympic Committee and modern Olympic Games), who once said,"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Frank King, the chairman and CEO of the Calgary Olympic Games, even mentioned Edwards at the Closing Ceremony.

You have captured our hearts and filled us with memories. You have broken world records and you have established many of your own personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.

The athlete himself speaks humorously about this imaginative comparison.

"I'd like to say I flew like an eagle, but I was probably closer to the ostrich,"

– Eddie Edwards, speaking to the Guardian.

Edward's Olympic life in ski jumping didn't last long. Shortly after Calgary, the so-called Eddie the Eagle Rule was instituted to stop future amateurs qualifying for the Olympics in a similar fashion to what Edwards had achieved. The rule required hopefuls to be placed in the top 50 of the world’s competitors or be ranked in the top 30% to compete in international standard events.

The new rule, as well as numerous injuries, meant that Edwards failed to return to the Olympic Games as a competitor. But Edwards had already achieved his goal and proved that even the biggest dreams can come true. After the release of the film Eddie the Eagle in 2015, a new generation was introduced to both Edwards and the exciting world of ski jumping. And surely they can find inspiration in this amazing story – as millions of fans did 33 years ago.

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